Question: How do you organize a successful holiday pop-up shop downtown? Answer: Give away lots of free beer and wine.
Unfortunately, what draws a crowd of appreciative and thirsty Millennials doesn't necessarily make for a very great business model. A lot of entrepreneurs would like to figure out how to win more than attention to their startups. Attracting revenue is a matter of survival.
In a Tuesday brown bag lunch forum co-hosted by the Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO) and Café Commerce, the key takeaway was the need to move beyond social media mojo and into the realm of cash flow.
The forum, which drew a standing-room only audience, was hosted by Peter French, Café Commerce president, and Lori Houston, CCDO director. Panel participants included vendors Priscilla Martinez, owner of Joyarte Jewelry, and Manny Carral, owner of Revolución Coffee + Juice.
It quickly became apparent that one challenge is making a small business work along the Houston and Commerce street corridors. Both Martinez and Carral indicated they would think twice about setting up shop full-time in the heart of the downtown commercial district.
So, what are the issues facing potential individual retail vendors?
Is it the Chicken or the Egg?
As Houston pointed out, there still are very few residents downtown. The goal is to build enough apartment units to reach critical mass and thus enable retail to survive. Urban dwellers, however, want to see retail amenities before they move into the city center. It's a classic conundrum.
San Antonio's current model of urban core development is occurring on "islands" such as the Broadway Corridor/Pearl complex and the Southtown/Blue Star area. Large, vacant gaps exist in between.
People are attracted to the growing wealth of attractions in each community: apartment complexes, restaurants, coffee shops, bars and boutiques, and a growing sense of walkability and pedestrian/cycling flow that enlivens the public spaces. In between is downtown, but there is no need to go downtown if one doesn't want to.
Perhaps this point will become moot as development on Broadway continues to edge southward and River North along Broadway and around the Tobin Center. Still, with no single thoroughfare beckoning residents with comfortable public transportation alternatives, sidewalks and bike lanes, San Antonio's center city is essentially two distinct neighborhoods: north and south.
Too Little Time, Very Little Visibility
Another issue that surfaced at Cafe Commerce: vendors are given very short windows of opportunity in the otherwise vacant storefronts. Joyarte was only open for three days, Purse and Clutch will be there for one week, and the AME Collaborative on Travis Street is closing this Saturday. This gives vendors too little time to build awareness, or give customers the opportunity to get out and see them.
Lack of signage is another issue. Each shop features a 18" x 24" sign that says "OPEN," but that's inadequate. There was a large whiteboard in front of the 231 E. Houston St. location, but it was not professionally done and difficult to read. The lack of temporary banners or other signage is a problem. In some instances, signs advertising failed businesses, such as the long-defunct Cafe Punta de Cielo, are ill-advised reminders that confuse passersby.
Restaurant parking valets pose a different kind of challenge. How can people see Joyarte's enticing display if three valets block the view? When asked, they were disinclined to move. Who knows what their agreement with the City is to set up shop on the sidewalk...or perhaps they can just get away with it?
Marketing support seems weak. Although there is an agency assigned to publicize the Pop-Ups, vendors are having more success with their own social media efforts. Social media mobilizes loyalists; it brings in few newcomers.
Busy on the street, not in the shops, is another symptom. Houston Street was packed Saturday night with people that came to see the Lion King at the Majestic, dining at Bohanan's and the Palm, and heading to the Tobin Center. Unfortunately, there was little ancillary traffic in the pop-up shops. Making the pop-ups part of the downtown experience is the challenge next year, if not immediately.
It's the Parking, Stupid!
In a previous article, then-District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal suggested change was afoot to address downtown parking and traffic flow. That's simply not happening. For example, it cost $8 to park in the city-owned St. Mary's St. garage for a little over two hours to cover the event at Cafe Commerce. The garage was far from full, indicating there is a poor balance between supply and demand.
Granted, there is the Downtown Tuesday initiative, where parking is free on the streets and in city-owned garages after 6 p.m. However, the Houston Street garage is not free when there is a show at the Majestic Theater. Parking is also full price on Saturdays, when the Pop-Ups are in operation.
In an attempt to be progressive, the city recently announced a new smartphone app to help locate parking spaces. Ironically, using handheld devices while driving will be illegal starting Jan. 1. In any case, it's a Band-Aid covering up a broader issue.
Do Landlords Really Care?
Carral was once eager to set up a downtown location for Revolución (he currently operates a cafe in Alamo Heights). He tried twice to rent space near the San Antonio River on Houston Street. In one instance, he said, the landlord dumped him when it seemed like Dunkin' Donuts wanted a 10-year lease. That didn't work out, and the landlord again approached Carral. However, when the landlord saw their menu, he immediately deemed it "too polarizing."
For one of the three brief days she was there, Martinez was forced to move her tables to one side so the landlord could host a luncheon. As she pointed out, it was his prerogative, but it obviously left a bad taste in her mouth. If the landlord isn't fully committed, what would it be like to sign on full-time?
Bottom line, it's a questionable business proposition for boutiques or galleries to set up shop downtown at this point. As it is, it's hard for businesses like these to survive even in towns with lots of browsing foot traffic, like Boerne or Fredericksburg.
Although the 80/20 Foundation has provided funds to Acción Texas to provide loans to those seeking to open a shop downtown...it still has to be paid back even if the business fails. As Martinez noted, she doesn't have the capital to start a retail business. And a loan is still a loan, no matter how friendly the terms.
If OPEN: Pop-Up Shops wants to thrive next year, perhaps they should set up something similar to BRICK Marketplace in the Blue Star. The storefront at 231 E. Houston St. would be an ideal location. As long as they have adequate professional signage, and no valets loitering in front of the store.
OPEN: Downtown Pop-up Shops are open Tuesdays and Saturdays from 12-9 p.m. through Dec. 30.
*Featured/top image: Business at Revolución Coffee + Juice has been slow. Photo by Page Graham.\